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The evolution of horror movies: Why less is still more

Published: Thursday, Oct. 24 2013 3:45 p.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, Feb. 19 2014 6:02 p.m. MST

Legendary director Alfred Hitchcock's work is characterized by more subtle scares.

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Carl Sederholm is a champion and connoisseur of horror movies. First a hobby, then an obsession, he channeled his love of fright into a career, teaching classes about American horror and monsters at Brigham Young University.

“The thing that I worry about is that horror will be seen in terms of immorality,” Sederholm said of his beloved subject. “And it's an easy target because you might have a film that has violence, or it might have bad language or it might have nudity … exploitative-type material. But I've always come to the sense the horror, the story itself, is moral in the end.”

Sederholm anticipates denouncements of the horror genre. People have questioned his own morality in light of his favorite subject.

But fans like Sederholm say horror is a self-reflecting genre. It puts a magnifying glass to our collective love of terror, using current events and our own worst enemy — ourselves. Although the trend may be to create bloodier, more violent scenes, the horror genre is at its best when it leaves things to the overactive imagination.

We love horror

“Let me put my horror hat on here,” Sederholm said as he attempted to explain what draws him to the genre. “I think that I've always thought that people do like to be scared, even those who say they don't. And I think part of it has to do with the fact that it's fear in a safe environment. I mean, as scary as a horror movie is, there's really nothing that can harm you at all in that circumstance. People often tell me that they don't watch horror because they don't like to be scared. … Sometimes I think they're just afraid that somehow it's real.”

There are purposes for this fake fear, said Brigid Cherry, horror expert and author of "Routledge Film Guidebook to Horror."

“These experiences all allow us to vicariously experience thrills and terrors with low to zero risk,” Cherry said. “This can be cathartic, maybe allowing us to get some anxieties out of our system, but many people also find these feelings exhilarating for their own sake or find the relief afterwards pleasurable.”

Cherry said that horror films have many subgenres within the main genre that may appeal to different people and create different responses. Various types of monsters and villains allow moviegoers to experience things they might otherwise avoid, testing their limits of bravery, Cherry said.

Villains reflect society

That dark side is reflected in the nature of the villains in horror movies, and the ways the characters are victimized by the bad guys. Through the ages, horror films have existed to create larger-than-life villains for our subconscious to sort through.

“Horror films tend to reflect the anxieties of the cultural moment,” Cherry said. “Many of the 1950s horror films deal with fears related to the Cold War, nuclear disasters and science run wild. It is said that every time gets the monsters it deserves, be these rampaging terrorists that fall from the sky or mental patients, pedophiles and sadists that prey on our teenage children either at home or on trips to Europe.”

Sederholm said that a large push in the last 20 years of horror has been to make a villain who is less obvious. Whether they keep their masks on, or have unclear motives for their crimes against humanity, our modern bad guys are less predictable.

“You don't really meet people like a stereotypical villain all that often," Sederholm said. "A villain may actually do something nice for someone. On the way to their great heist they might help an old lady across the street.”

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